UFC 181’s Alex White the face of new autism kickboxing therapy program

UFC featherweight Alex White [L] is the face of a new kickboxing therapy program for autistic children

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Long before he was a UFC featherweight, Alex White (10-1) was a bullied child, who had trouble communicating with or even looking directly at other people. After accidentally drinking gasoline as a toddler, the small-town Missouri native had his vocal chords burned and was left with a speech impediment.

When he discovered MMA and began training, he was effectively homeless, with little self-esteem and not many prospects for the future. Training with Joe Worden and learning to fight helped transform White’s mind, body and life.

"Martial arts and fighting gave me the confidence in myself to look people in the eye, do something with my life and have goals," White told FOX Sports before his UFC debut last spring.

So, it’s little wonder that, heading into his UFC 181 showdown against Clay Collard (13-5), "The Spartan" chose to be the face of a new kickboxing therapy program for children with Autism, led by his coach in Missouri. Earlier this year, Worden was asked by the Fighting for Autism organization to start up the first ever kickboxing therapy camp for autistic children, and it’s been a big success so far according to the coach.

"Alex is a great spokesman because, even though he’s not autistic, he knows what it’s like to be bullied. When he has his accident, he was left with a speech impediment, and was bullied," Worden said.

"You know how kids are — they try to find the weakest link to pick on. These kids on the spectrum, that’s who they bully, oftentimes. They don’t know how to take care of themselves, and they are an easy target. Alex knows what that’s like. He’s battled bullying and takes it to heart. He likes to take care of kids and they look up to him."

Alex knows what that’s like. He’s battled bullying and takes it to heart

— Joe Worden

The classes, pairing children ages seven to twelve with their parents, is free to participants. Worden tells FOX Sports that adjusting the classes to the students’ special needs was challenging, but the group is seeing early success and it has been quite rewarding.

"It was kind of difficult to start with because children with autism have a lot of sensory issues, and they get overwhelmed really easy. Also, they have trouble crossing their center line, sometimes. So, when we had them throw punches at pads, it was a challenge for many of them to cross their right hand to their left side," he details.

"But we broke it down real simple and included the parents as mitt holders so the children had that comfort level with their partners. It’s been wonderful to see because there are some kids who we’re told never spoke to strangers who are now having fun, smiling and even talking. At the end of a second class, one student walked past me with his dad and he said, "fun!" The father told me, ‘you have no idea what a big deal that was, for him to talk to you.’ It’s so rewarding."

Worden says that he and his wife’s kickboxing therapy classes have averaged about fifteen to twenty students per class, and that the Fighting for Autism organization has expressed interest in expanding the program. It would make an already busy year even more hectic for the Farmington, MO coach.

He’s coaching a team of kickboxers for a new television pilot, cornering White this Saturday at UFC 181, and bringing along several more UFC prospects.

As for his top pupil, the inspiring 26 year-old, Worden says that they’ve been working hard to rebound from a July loss, this week against Collard. Alex White has always been tough and hard-hitting, but now Worden hopes to have him be more well-rounded.

"We really concentrated on turning Alex into a complete mixed martial artist," Worden said.

"We knew he had hands and could bang with anybody. He got into a pissing contest on the feet in his last fight because he thought, ‘no one has ever beaten me on the feet, and he’s not going to.’ But you know what, we had two fights in a row in the UFC where we took it on two weeks’ notice. This time, we’ve had six weeks. So, we’ve really been working on wrestling, take downs and controlling the fight.

"Collard is a tough guy. He’s only been put away once, by Max Holloway, who is also tough. So, hopefully we are going to go out there and mix it up."